The Fourth Industrial Revolution: Are developing countries keeping up?

South Africa hosted the 3rd Global Forum on national advisory councils. It was the first time the international event was held in Africa

South Africa hosted the 3rd Global Forum on national advisory councils. It was the first time the international event was held in Africa

The evidence suggests that Africa and the developing world will fall behind in the Fourth Industrial Revolution (FIR) while countries like Japan stay ahead of the curve. This was revealed during the second day of the third meeting of the Global Forum of National Advisory Councils held in Pretoria at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research International Conference Centre.

The forum, which provides a platform for discussion and exchange of ideas among leading minds in science, technology and innovation (STI) from various countries around the world was hosted by the department of science and technology (DST) in partnership with the National Advisory Council on Innovation on December 5 and 6 2017.

Chairing the session entitled: “The Fourth Industrial Revolution & Digitalisation and Implications for STI Policy” was Dr Sea-Hong Oh, senior researcher at the Korea Institute of Science and Technology Evaluation and Planning, who claimed that the FIR was impacting all industries across the globe. “Depending on how you respond to the wave of the post-industrial revolution, it may be opportunity or crisis,” said Oh in opening the session.

Panellist Dr Raslan Ahmad, vice president of the Malaysian Industry-Government Group for High Technology, saw the FIR as an opportunity for local job creation and investing in human capital. “We need to remain on track with the targeted annual GDP goals of 5.1% [growth] by 2020, and then we need to move from input driven-goals to productivity-driven goals.” Ahmad also saw the Malaysian government playing a role in designing policies and strategies to assist exports, as well as formalising SMMEs.

Challenges facing Africa

Professor Romain Murenzi, executive director of The World Academy of Sciences argued that while FIR promises much change and positive opportunities for African communities, there are various studies that highlight the continent’s lack of preparation, including limited access to electricity, which affects approximately two-thirds of Africans. “We can also look at measures of scientific productivity — according to the most recent statistics in the Unesco Science Report, Sub-Saharan Africa had 91 scientists per median population, with many countries reporting fewer than 40; America [reports] more than 4 000 scientists per median.”

President and chief executive of the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences Thierry Zomahoun agreed with Murenzi, suggesting that while African states have previously committed to the development of science and technology through national policies, these were not satisfactorily implemented.  Zomahoun highlighted the low research outputs from African universities and rankings on the global landscape, as well as a lack of insufficient intellectual property generation. “Productivity and competitiveness is also something very important. The World Economic Forum (WEF) said that in this century we will be distinguishing between ‘innovation-rich’ and ‘innovation-poor’ countries, and natural resources won’t mean anything anymore.”

For Zamahoun, the past few decades have also produced few STI results for the continent: “One could say in a politically correct manner that a lot has been achieved, but the results are disappointing because efforts around STI policies are poorly co-ordinated; they are disconnected from the national development agenda, and they are underfunded.”

Ilse Karg of the department of trade and industry said the FIR has necessitated digital transformation and collaboration between government and the private sector, among other needs. Karg further highlighted key drivers — identified by WEF as necessary for future production technologies — which include human capital, global trade and investment, demand environments and institutional frameworks.

According to Karg there is an urgent need for youth development and vocational training to mitigate the risks posed by the FIR in perpetuating unemployment and poverty in developing countries. Unlike the structures of traditional skills development, Karg argued: “The bulk of the skills requirement is going to be on the semi- and semi-high levels, and there will also be greater demand for higher level skills at university level.”

Society 5.0 – A step closer towards the future

The host of the 2020 Summer Olympics, Japan, has had a science and technology framework compiled every five years since 1995. Researcher from the Embassy of Japan in South Africa Sarama Tsunoda, who represented counsellor in the embassy Isamu Yamaguchi, outlined Japan’s vision for 2016-2020, centred on the concept of “Society 5.0”.

The concept is an advancement model for different stages of human development. Early human society (1.0) is considered to be the hunting and gathering society, which evolved into 2.0 —the agricultural society,  where humans shifted to a settlement lifestyle. This was succeeded by the industrial society (3.0) and most recently, the information society (4.0).

According to Tsunoda: “Society 5.0 is a concept proposal of an advanced, future and human-centred society to be realised through the high-level integration of cyber and physical space, by taking advantage of state-of-the-art technologies such as AI (artificial intelligence), IoT (Internet of things), robotics and big data.”

Japan views this next phase in human advancement as a resolution to social problems, including ageing in society, shortages in the workforce and mitigating natural disasters, among others. Society 4.0 is seen as progressing from significantly relying on human analytics, where society accessed information for the purposes of research and analysis for production and the instructing of robotics. This will see a shift to a stage where big data, installed through IoT and stored in cyberspace, will be analysed by AI and will then be accessible in the physical space in the form of high-added value information or equipment operating on AI instructions.

Society 5.0 will not provide solutions to local problems but those faced worldwide, and encourage economic advancement, with the resolution of social problems across age, gender and other social barriers. Tsunoda claimed that robots will not replace humans, but they will unburden society of the challenges of dealing with big data, and expand human capability through the use of massive caches of information and robots. “This allows (for) possibilities to create new values in industry and society that the world has never experienced before.”

Where focus is most needed

For Zomahoun, pan-African ecosystems must meet the needs of the FIR along with improved mechanisms of co-ordination and the promotion of STI at a tertiary level. This requires resources and investment in human capital: “We need more pragmatic, forward-looking, innovative, STI policies which take stock of today’s world — the 21st Century.”

Comments from the floor suggested that quality basic education needs to be prioritised as a means to complementing tertiary education and innovation, and that the school curricula should be reviewed to ensure that they adequately prepare young people for the FIR and promote inclusive innovation.

Karg said the STI industry needs to further define the challenges, and invest in youth development as well as policy dialogue. “For South Africa, the department of trade and industry created an industry solution and piloted a programme with 3 000 students, which was very successful, and we are going to launch a programme next year to upscale youth and skills development for the industry.” 

In closing the session, Oh suggested that FIR would not only impact the global socioeconomic landscape but also change education and innovation ecosystems — issues that should be taken up in the next forum.